The Great Gandolfis: Peckham’s world class camera makers

by Lisa Soverall, heritage officer

“If I can’t see what the customer wants, I’m in a bit of a flutter… until I get hold of the plane and a piece of wood and then all is peace.”

Fred Gandolfi speaking in the BBC documentary, The Industrial Grand Tour: The Camera Maker, 1974.

The National Science and Media Museum in Bradford holds a rare collection of exhibits that are a part of Peckham’s history. The items in question are large plate cameras and tripods made by the exceptional family of craftsmen, the Gandolfis, whose business was started by Louis Gandolfi in 1885, first at premises in Kensington Place and from the late 1890s onwards at addresses in Old Kent Road, Park Hall Road and finally Borland Road, Peckham.

Portrait of camera maker Louis Gandolfi, taken c.1900
Louis Gandolfi, c.1900

Louis was born in Clerkenwell in 1863 and by the age of 12 was an apprentice to a cabinet maker. Having acquired enough skills at age 17, he began working for a small business of camera-makers – Lejeune and Perken, making large plate cameras in the city. However, after 5 years it is said that he had to leave the business as his skills earned him more money than his colleagues and this caused too many complaints against him. It was then that Louis decided to set up his own camera making business.

Louis and his wife Caroline (who initially undertook the French polishing and brass work within the business) instilled a strong work ethic into their six children. At one time all of the children were involved in the Gandolfi camera business and before Louis died in 1932, he had ensured his legacy by passing on his skills as a camera maker to his sons Thomas, Frederick and Arthur which would see it run for over 100 years.

Photography was a booming business in the late Victorian period thanks to advances in the processing of film, particularly the introduction of dry plate emulsions made from gelatine. Glass plates of different sizes were put into the back of a camera and when the photographer was ready to ‘take’ his photo, he would expose the glass plate to the light, and thereby the image would be captured on the chemical coated plate. The dry plate process meant that the glass plates were coated with the new emulsion, dried and stored until needed. The plates could then be loaded into cameras at convenience and processed any time after they were exposed. This was a huge improvement on wet plate photography. This process involved hand coating the plate with a light sensitive wet emulsion and loading into the camera just before exposing it to light and then developing the plate straight away – a much more laborious chemical operation with larger, more unwieldy equipment.  So the new development in processing meant you could separate the plate from the camera as storage was a much simpler affair and cameras could now be smaller and mass produced.

Initially, Louis’s camera designs were fairly simple to make and assemble, and sold cheaply to accommodate the new mass market. The 1880s also saw a boom in bicycle riding. The convenience of being able to attach one of Louis’s cameras to a cycle increased the company’s success and profile and, of course, profits. However, by the time he was at his new premises at 752 Old Kent Road in 1896, it would be the pre-dry plate camera designs that would give the Gandolfi brand the greatest success and return Louis back to his original skills as a furniture maker and craftsman. 

Screenshot from The Industrial Grand Tour: The Camera Maker, BBC, 1974, showing Fred Gandolfi with one of his finished cameras

These large format, folding wooden framed cameras were more traditionally made and attracted professional photographers.  Louis made two designs – the Universal (which was a square bellows style) and the Imperial (a tapered bellows style similar to the one pictured here).   The cameras were made to order and comprised three main areas of work – woodwork (including French polishing), brass work (with up to 125 pieces in one camera) and assembly. The cameras were patiently and beautifully crafted from the finest Cuban mahogany.  The baseboard of a 15” x 12” Gandolfi camera was made up of 11 separate wood panels alone and a 5” x 4” camera would incorporate some 100 brass fittings, each one lacquered and hand finished. The bellows were meticulously prepared from a variety of fabrics including leather, felt and velvet. It could take around 3 weeks of joint working between the brothers to produce a 10” x 8” Gandolfi camera.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Louis started to secure overseas government contracts, some of which required the new ‘Imperial’, designed to withstand hotter weather conditions and made to any order from half-plate to 15” x 12”. The design was later updated by his sons as ‘The Precision’ and continued to be produced up to the 1970s. By 1928, the business had moved to an old hatpin factory at number 2 Borland Road, Peckham, where there was plenty of room for their workshop.  

Gandolfi cameras were specially commissioned for events like Captain Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition from 1910 to 1913 and Lord Carnarvon’s Tutankhamun expedition, as well as a commission from Queen Mary. The Gandolfis were also the first company commissioned by the Royal Naval Air Service to provide aerial cameras, which helped the business survive the First World War. Their expertise would also be required during the Second World War supplying cameras for the War Department.

The core values of good craftsmanship and use of quality materials meant that the three Gandolfi brothers would not substitute quality for quantity and turned down lucrative contracts as it was impossible to fulfil them with so few staff, preferring bespoke commissions. However, their reputation for excellence continued to see them receive numerous commissions.  It’s likely, for example, if you see a prison mug-shot from around the mid-1940s, that it was taken from a Gandolfi portrait camera. The Gandolfi tripod – the ‘Portable Studio Stand’ was also a successful line and over 25,000 were produced over the lifetime of the business.

After Louis’s son Thomas died in 1965, the business continued with brothers Arthur and Frederick at the helm.  They would receive commissions from professional photographers, magazines, students and colleges among others. Their skills were in great demand and they were becoming the last of their kind in making hand-made quality cameras. Long waiting lists for their ‘Precision’ camera continued into the 1970s and Thomas’s son, Thomas junior left his career in engineering to join the firm in 1976. Another side of the business was the importance of teaching others the value of hand making cameras and Frederick made several demonstrations for institutions.

In 1980 The Science Museum held a special exhibition commemorating 100 years of camera making by the Gandolfi Family.  By 1982, Arthur and Fred decided they were unable to run the business themselves and reached an agreement to sell it to Brian Gould and Sir Kenneth Corfield. Both men were staunch advocates of the Gandolfi brand and ethos.

Fred died in 1990 aged 86 and Arthur died in 1993 aged 87. Like their father Louis, they ensured the legacy of the Gandolfi name with their cameras continuing to be made well into the early 2000s and immortalised at The National Science and Media Museum in Bradford.

Find out more

Online
Books
  • Crafts Today as Yesterday in Colour by David Gibbon, Colour Library International, 1976
  • The Birth of Photography: the story of the formative years 1800-1900 by Brian Coe, Ash and Grant, 1976
Press Cuttings at Southwark Local History Library and Archive
  • Gandolfi ‘Centenary’ exhibition, Science Museum, South Kensington, Science Museum Magazine, Dec – Feb 1980
  • Craftsmen Extraordinary by Mick Wells and Adrian Murrell, The Lady, 7 July 1977 
  • Gandolfi – a Family of Camera makers, article by Science Museum
  • Two Grumpy Old Men, The Independent on Sunday, 25 January 2004
  • Wood Camera Construction, transcript of lecture by F L Gandolfi, 1975
  • Family in focus, South London Press, 25 November 1980